Louis Van Gaal sauntered into Old Trafford with the demeanour of a man who felt he belonged. He had been, he insisted, the manager of the number one club in the Netherlands, of the number one club in Spain, of the number one club in Germany. It was surely inevitable that he would end up in charge of the number one club in England. There was really only one question his appearance insisted that needed to be asked about his appointment to become manager of Manchester United: what took you so long?
It was a bold, ambitious, optimistic attitude he embraced, a quantum leap from his nervous, overwhelmed predecessor David Moyes, a manager who always bore the countenance of a man who assumed he was the victim of some enormous administrative error. Now in his sixties Van Gaal has the vibrant air of a man half his age. Indeed his bizarre tuft of hair seems to be growing darker by the day.
There was, however, one slight problem with his analysis. As he himself acknowledged, United might be the number one club in terms of commerce and international renown, but after last season they hardly qualify as the biggest in the country in terms of results. Failing to achieve Champions League qualification is not the calling card of the best. Seventh is not the new number one. To get them back on track, targeted back to the top, he has got his work cut out. This will be no doddle.
Rightly the new boss didn’t make predictions about where he is intending to finish next season (“no-one knows the future so why do you ask?” he demanded of a reporter who wanted to know where he thought United would finish next season). But one thing he said was significant: he was not going to judge the players in the squad until he had the chance to work with them for a couple of weeks. He knew of them by reputation, but he wanted, he said, to see how they responded under his instruction, to see how quickly they might adapt to his philosophy. Only if he decided they couldn’t would he, if necessary, add to the summer purchases of Luke Shaw and Ander Herrera. Only if they failed his test would the cheque book be required.
It is, then, going to be an interesting fortnight ahead. United flew out to Los Angeles on Friday morning, adding nicely to Van Gaal’s personal glut of air miles. And from Saturday the auditions start.
Looking at the players left, Van Gaal is right: it is hard to make predictions. He has been gifted an excellent goalkeeper, who is improving all the time. So it is unlikely that he will need to buy in a replacement for David de Gea. Unless he wants to bring Tim Krul in for penalties, that is.
At left back he has Shaw, which is surely a good thing. The rest of his defence, however, is problematic. With Vidic, Ferdinand and Evra all gone it is one with a horrible experience deficit. Smalling, Jones and Evans were prudently positioned by Sir Alex Ferguson as the long term future in the middle. But none have seized the moment as they might. None is the player they were expected to have become by now. Jones in particular appears to have stalled since his fine debut season. Unless they respond vibrantly to Van Gaal’s approach, you imagine there will be reinforcements at the back. Thomas Vermaelen has been mooted. And given Van Gaal enthusiasm for all things Dutch, Ron Vlaar’s excellent showing the World Cup semi final will have served him well for a move.
But it is in midfield that the new manager faces the biggest problem, not least because of the injury Michael Carrick suffered in the first day of training, ruling him out for twelve weeks. There are more questions than answers in the squad Van Gaal inherited. Will Tom Cleverley, Darren Fletcher and the recently shorn Marouane Fellaini be able to persuade him of their prowess over the next fortnight? Some might say you could give them 140 days and they still would come up short. The chances of Nigel de Jong arriving on a swiftly organised deal seem to be strengthening by the hour.
And can Ashley Young, Nani and Antonio Valencia convince the new boss that they can become his next Arjen Robben? As for the number ten position, which of United’s surfeit of challengers can persuade him that he doesn’t need to make an emergency call to Wesley Sneijder? Juan Mata? Shinji Kagawa? Wayne Rooney?
Still, at least up front he has a man he knows he can trust. That is if Robin Van Persie doesn’t throw an enormous wobbler if he is not given the captaincy, a position that Van Gaal refused to comment on at his first press conference.
Of course, the players he inherits might do a brilliant job in persuading the boss that they have all the requisites needed to be in his team. But you suspect there may well have been some soundings made already. And this is a guess of the team Van Gaal will send out in his first Premier League game against Swansea on 16 August:
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- Manchester United
- Louis Van Gaal